Victor 21549 & V-40017 – “Buddy” Baker – 1928

There are fair number of artists who might have achieved the success of Jimmie Rodgers, but, for whatever reason, did not.  Some, like Atlanta’s Ernest Rogers, were not musicians by profession, and only recorded a few songs on the side.  Others perhaps lacked something that Rodgers had, be it talent, charisma, ambition, or maybe simply luck.  Regardless of the circumstances, in the wake of the Singing Brakeman’s monumental success were a drove of excellent-yet-underappreciated artists who left behind recorded legacies ranging from one song to dozens.  One such artist is “Buddy” Baker, a vaudevillian performer who made only two records for Victor in 1928, about whom there have previously existed nary any publicized biographical details, and about the same number of decent sounding recordings of his work.

Baker pictured in the 1930 Victor “Old Familiar Tunes” catalog.

Research reveals that “Buddy” was in fact Ernest H. Baker, and was born on May 17, 1902, in Escambia County, Alabama, the son of John and Rebecca Baker.  In his teenage years he worked in a mill, but he pursued a career in music when he came of age.  He traveled to Chicago in June of 1928 to record for the Victor Talking Machine Company, and cut six sides on the twenty-first and two more the following day.  Of those eight, only four were released: “Penitentiary Blues” and “Box Car Blues” on Victor 21549, and “Matrimonial Intentions” and “Alimony Blues” on Victor V-40017.  Of the four unissued sides were “I Want My Mammy”, “Nobody Knows What’s On My Mind Blues”, and “Razor Jim”.  Baker returned to the Victor studio one year later in Camden, New Jersey to wax four more, including “It’s Tough on Everybody” and “The Rambling Cowboy”, but this time, none were released.  His four surviving recordings depict an artist with a clever sense of diction and a penchant for simplistic scat singing, and a unique approach to a guitar method typical of his time.  At the time of his recording career, he was living with his family in Mobile, Alabama, and began performing on radio station WODX around the time of its inauguration in 1930.  Later, he seems to have taken up in Ohio, where he found work as a welder for Babcock and Wilcox.  Probably in 1932, he married a woman named Jessie.  Baker died from peritonitis, resulting from a perforated ulcer, in Barberton, Ohio, on May 24, 1937, and his body was shipped back home to Alabama to be buried in his family’s plot in Mobile’s Magnolia Cemetery.  Like Jimmie Rodgers, Buddy Baker was gone from the world at only thirty-five.

Victor 21549 and V-40017 were recorded on June 21, 1928 at 952 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Illinois.  On both, Ernest “Buddy” Baker sings and accompanies himself on guitar.  21549 purportedly sold a total of about 9,400 copies, while sales figures for V-40017 are not available.

Baker’s “Penitentiary Blues” is one of many renditions of the old folk ballad “Little Sadie”—also known as “Bad Lee Brown”—which was later adapted into the western swing repertoire as “Cocaine Blues” (not to be confused with the unrelated Luke Jordan and Dick Justice song of the 1920s).  Preceding Clarence Ashley’s “Little Sadie” (which used a different melody) by more than a year, this version is likely the earliest recording of the classic folk song, though the song itself existed for at least several decades prior to first being recorded.  Other early (pre-“Cocaine”) recordings of the song include “Seven Foot Dilly” John Dilleshaw’s unissued “Bad Lee Brown” for Okeh in 1929 and Riley Puckett’s “Chain Gang Blues” for Bluebird in 1934.  Woody Guthrie must have had a copy of Baker’s record, because he recorded a nearly identical version under the title “Bad Lee Brown” in 1944.  As “Cocaine Blues”, it was introduced in 1947 by T.J. “Red” Arnall as a member of W.A. Nichol’s Western Aces on the S & G label.  It inspired contemporary covers by Roy Hogsed on both Coast and Capitol and Billy Hughes on King, and was famously revived by Johnny Cash in his 1968 Folsom Prison concert.

Penitentiary Blues, recorded June 21, 1928 by “Buddy” Baker.

On the reverse, Baker sings a real blues number, “Box Car Blues”, with some clever songwriting and a little Emmett Miller style yodeling added in for flavor.

Box Car Blues, recorded June 21, 1928 by “Buddy” Baker.

On the first side of his second (and final) record, Baker sings “Matrimonial Intentions”, showcasing more of his guitar playing.  This song was covered by Jack White in the 2017 American Epic Sessions, which saw modern artists recording covers of 1920s and ’30s songs on 78 RPM with acoustic instrumentation.  White put together a fine performance of it, and he’ll always have my respect for digging up such an obscure old title.

Matrimonial Intentions, recorded June 21, 1928 by Buddy Baker.

Finally, Baker concludes his brief career on records with “Alimony Blues”, bemoaning divorce with some fairly inventive guitar work.

Alimony Blues, recorded June 21, 1928 by Buddy Baker.

Hollywood No. 1 – Roll Grane – 1938

Something about the Great Depression must have given folks World’s Fair fever, for at least five different expositions were held in the United States in the 1930s.  I can’t say I blame them either, a trip to a World’s Fair would probably do a lot to lift my spirits right now, and I’m not even experiencing economic ruin, severe drought, and another world war on the horizon, but I digress.  It seems that these fairs got people to singing, and some of them even had official records released in their honor, to be sold among the countless trinkets and souvenirs that could be brought home from one.  Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress Exposition commissioned two pieces, one a pop song by local bandleader Art Kassel, the other a march by the renowned John Philip Sousa—his last composition, in fact.  The 1939 New York World’s Fair got George and Ira Gershwin to pen a song in its honor prior to the former’s untimely demise.

The Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939 in San Francisco was not as grandiose an affair, but it still managed to attract the attention of songwriters.  One such individual was Mr. Roll Grane of Oakland, California.  A California native and member of the California Contented Club, which was evidently a heavy promoter of the San Francisco fair, in 1938 he composed a ditty titled “I’m Off to California in the Morning” to bring attention to the event, and to San Francisco’s bridges.  A competent guitarist and vaudevillian vocalist with an eccentric style, Grane himself performed his song for the radio, and copies of the sheet music were distributed around Oakland at conventions in the year preceding the Exposition.  Though the fair attracted significant crowds, Grane himself fell victim to obscurity, and details regarding his life and times are virtually non-existent.

Hollywood No. 1 (matrix number “H5”) was recorded on September 19, 1938, possibly in either Los Angeles or San Francisco, California, and was pressed by the Allied Phonograph and Record Mfg. Co.  It is a single sided record bearing a decorative etching on the reverse.  On it, Roll Grane sings and accompanies himself on guitar; his performance is announced at the beginning by an unknown individual.

Grane sings his own “I’m Off to California in the Morning”—”telling about our wonderful bridges… and exposition”—in a fashion sounding fresh off the vaudeville stage, and the song itself resembles a folksy take on the same sort of theme as the Century of Progress Exposition’s official song “In 1933”, advising listeners to head to California to visit the upcoming Golden Gate Exposition.  This song is Mr. Grane’s sole claim to any sort of lasting fame, and it is probably the only recording he ever made.

I’m Off to California in the Morning, recorded September 19, 1938 by Roll Grane.

Vocalion 5264 – Emry Arthur – 1928

A contemporary of artists such as Bradley Kincaid, and an antecedent of the likes of Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger, mountain balladeer Emry Arthur, with songs like “Man of Constant Sorrow”, was an important member of the first generation of popular American folk singers on records.

Emry Paul Arthur was born on September 17, 1902 in Wayne County, Kentucky.  His father was a respected singer and amateur song collector in the area; his mother died when he was in infancy.  Like his brothers, Emry followed in his father’s musical footsteps, learning to play a guitar; however, a hunting accident cost him a fingertip and limited him to a simple yet effective strumming style.  In adulthood, the search for work brought him to Indianapolis.  At the beginning of 1928, Arthur traveled a short ways to Chicago to make some records with his banjo-playing brother Henry for Vocalion.  They sold better than might’ve been anticipated, and Arthur returned to record quite prolifically over the following year, until his marriage broke up and sent him to Wisconsin.  There, he found employment with the Wisconsin Chair Company in Port Washington, and recorded for their Paramount label in 1929 and ’31, sometimes in duet with his new wife Della Hatfield.  He also recorded for William Myers’ Lonesome Ace in 1929, providing guitar accompaniment for Dock Boggs on his four sides for the label.  Following a single unissued recording for Gennett in 1931, Arthur took a four year recording hiatus, returning in 1935 for one session with Decca.   All-in-all, Arthur’s recording activities resulted in a total of nearly one hundred sides from 1928 to 1935; of particular note are his 1929 “Reuben, Oh Reuben” and two recordings of Dick Burnett’s “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, one for Vocalion in 1928 and one for Paramount in 1931.  After the conclusion of his recording career, Emry Arthur returned to Indianapolis, where he remained, with Della, until his death on August 22, 1967.

Vocalion 5264 was recorded on August 30, 1928 in Chicago, Illinois; Arthur’s ninth session.  He recorded unreleased takes of both sides the previous month.  Emry Arthur accompanies himself on the guitar.

An all around classic folk song, Arthur’s “Train Whistle Blue[s]” shares much in common with “K.C. Railroad Blues” recorded by Andrew and Jim Baxter, and “K.C. Moan” by the Memphis Jug Band.

Train Whistle Blue, recorded August 30, 1928 by Emry Arthur.

On the reverse, Emry sings another fine blues, “Empty Pocket Blues”, also drawing many floating verses from folk music tradition.

Empty Pocket Blues, recorded August 30, 1928 by Emry Arthur.

Broadway 8323 – Bud Kelly – 1932

Rex Kelley, a.k.a. Buck Nation, pictured on the cover of Songs Sung by Oklahoma Buck Nation and Tex Ann, circa 1935.

It’s time now to pay a visit to the Great Depression days of guitar strumming cowboy singers in ten-gallon hats and Mexican radio stations blasting their music thousands of miles past the border into United States, free from the auspices of the Federal Radio Commission.  Many of those countless, fairly small time folk singers made their fame on the radio and were never recorded for posterity, and of those who were, many only recorded sparsely.  Falling into the latter category is the performer who appears on the record presented herein: the one relatively prolific but now long forgotten Buck Nation.

Buck was born Rex Frederick Kelley on September 12, 1910 in the American badlands: Burke, South Dakota, a settlement of about three-hundred situated in-between the Missouri River and the Rosebud Indian Reservation.  Dropping the “e” from his last name, Kelly went to traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin early in 1932 to make his debut recordings for the faltering Paramount Records, resulting in six sides.  Adopting the stage name “Buck Nation”, he returned to the studio three years later, this time for Decca, resulting in twenty-two recordings made in January and February of 1935, some solo and others in duet with fellow singing cowboy Ray Whitley, plus several more playing guitar behind Tex Ritter.  Likely around the same time, he and his wife Louise—who performed with him as “Tex Ann”, and later divorced him and married Merle Travis—published a collection of songs titled Songs Sung by Oklahoma Buck Nation and Tex Ann, which included many of the songs he recorded.  Sometime in the 1930s or ’40s, he was one of the numerous cowboy singers to appear on “border blaster” radio, on XEPN in Piedras Negras, Coahuila.  He recorded another ten sides for Bluebird in 1940 and ’41 with Ed and Lloyd West as a member of a Sons of the Pioneers style vocal group and string ensemble called the Airport Boys, which predicted the styles of folksinging groups of the 1950s such as the Kingston Trio.  During World War II, Kelley served as a corporal in the United States Army.  After the war’s end, he recorded once again as a member of the the Six Westernaires with Porky Freeman and Slim Duncan, appearing on the Black and White label in 1946.  Rex Kelley reportedly suffered from a drinking problem, and he died on January 11, 1965.

Broadway 8323 was recorded in January or February of 1932 at the New York Recording Laboratories’ studio in Grafton, Wisconsin by Rex Kelly, accompanying himself on guitar.  It was the fifteenth to last record issued in Broadway’s 8000 “hillbilly” series, and operations at the NYRL ceased around six months later.  Being from 1932 and a Paramount product to boot, it can’t have sold too many copies

On the “A” side, Kelly sings an amiable rendition of a traditional cowboy ballad which you may recognize as the familiar “Streets of Laredo”, under the title that it was given by its purported writer Frank H. Maynard: “Cowboy’s Lament”.  The ballad evolved from the British folk song “The Unfortunate Rake”, the same source that gave way to the famous “St. James Infirmary”, with which it has a degree of lyrical similarity.

Cowboy’s Lament, recorded January/February 1932 by Bud Kelly.

On the “B” side, he sings “Broncho [sic] Mustang”, a song that bears more than a little topical resemblance to its contemporary “Strawberry Roan”, which Kelly recorded previously at the same session.  His style of delivery leads me to believe Mr. Kelly drew considerable inspiration from Frank Crumit (coupled with the fact that he also recorded Crumit’s “Down By the Railroad Tracks”).

Broncho Mustang, recorded January/February 1932 by Bud Kelly.

Victor 19813 – Carl T. Sprague – 1925

It’s come time we heard again from one of my favorite cowboy singers: Carl T. Sprague.  This is a record that I’ve had since my earliest days of collecting, one of about a hundred that I inherited from my great-great-grandfather.  As such, it’s been in my family since its original purchase in 1925.  Like many of that bunch however, the condition leaves something to be desired.  I’ve been searching fruitlessly for a replacement copy for some time, but as of yet no cigar.  (If you happen to have a copy you’re looking to get rid of, let’s talk.)  It escaped my interest for a long while after it arrived in my possession; before I’d listened to it, I assumed it was just a run of the early vocal record like all the Henry Burr and John Steel and whatnot that the old folks seemed so fond of.  Once it finally made its way onto my turntable, I realized I had been missing out.  It piqued my interest in old folk music and introduced me to Carl T. Sprague.  I later delved deeper to uncover more about the history of both songs, and became even more enthralled.  Suffice to say, it’s since become one of my favorite folk music records.  Both songs were popular comical songs in the second half of the nineteenth century, and both were scarcely recorded in the next century.  Though Sprague is credited on the labels as composer of both sides, the songs actually predate his birth by quite a few years.  Both were originally published on broadside song sheets, as was common practice in the several centuries preceding 1900.

Victor 19813 was recorded in Camden, New Jersey on August 3 and 5, 1925.  It was released in December of that year, and cut from the catalog in 1928.  They are among the earliest electrical recordings made, only a few months after Victor introduced their new process.  The Discography of American Historical Recordings notes that Victor’s “Special Booklet 1925” as a source.  I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it’s possible that this record never saw widespread release.  Obviously staples of his repertoire, Sprague re-recorded both these sides in 1972 for his eponymous LP.

First, is Sprague’s first recorded side, “Kisses”, a song which dates back to the days of broadside song sheets.  It was originally published in 1882 as “Sock Her on Her Kisser”.  Another version was recorded in 1941 by Lewis Winfield Moody for the Library of Congress by Robert F. Draves, under the title “Everybody Has a Finger in the Pie”.  Chubby Parker of WLS recorded “The Kissing Song” in 1931, which may be a version of the same song, but having never heard it, I cannot confirm.  Canadian folklorist MacEdward Leach collected a version of the song as “Turtle Dove” in Newfoundland in 1951.  The DAHR makes note that a re-make (take “5”) of “Kisses” was recorded on June 22, 1926; this take appears to be the originally issued one (“3”).  Sprague’s 1972 re-recording of the song was titled “Kissing”.

Kisses, recorded August 3, 1925 by Carl T. Sprague.

On “B”, Sprague sings another popular humorous ditty titled “The Club Meeting”, also known as “I’ve Only Been Down to the Club”, seemingly the first of only a very few recordings of the song.  Like the previous, this song was originally published on a broadside; it appears to have been originally published by E.H. Harding of New York in 1876, words and music by Joseph P. Skelly, also known for the memorable 1884 song “A Boy’s Best Friend is his Mother”, recorded by Vernon Dalhart and others.  Al Hopkins’ Buckle Busters (a.k.a. Hill Billies) recorded the song as “Down to the Club” in 1927 for Brunswick, the lyrics to which were transcribed and printed in the songbook “The Roaming Cowboy”, Book No. 2, published by the “border blaster” radio station XEPN of Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico in the mid-to-late 1930s.  Another version was sung by Sam Bell of Tuolumne County, California for the Library of Congress in 1939, recorded by Sidney Cowell Robertson.  Additional recordings were made by Walter Coon for Gennett in 1930 as “The Club Had a Meeting” and Billy Vest for Columbia in 1931 as “The Club Held a Meeting”, but neither were released.  (And my apologies for the label butchery, you can thank my great-great-grandfather’s fondness for writing numbers all over his records and my own attempt to get the junk off.)

The Club Meeting, recorded August 5, 1925 by Carl T. Sprague.